'The Cockroach': Ian McEwan's satirical Brexit novel showcases a late playful stage in his career
'The Cockroach' is the author's first bona fide novella and is full of witty scenes, absurd scenarios and ridiculous individuals
“I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction,” wrote Ian McEwan in a 2012 piece for The New Yorker. “It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” For the most part, McEwan’s giants have to date been neither long-winded nor unsightly. The closest he has come to creating that “perfect form” was On Chesil Beach. McEwan insisted it was a novella, but the judges for the 2007 Booker Prize deemed it a novel and placed it on their shortlist. Those 166 pages defined it – size mattered.
McEwan’s latest book weighs in at 100 pages, which makes its classification less contentious. The Cockroach is the author’s first bona fide novella and it takes its lead from one of the finest in world literature: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
“That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.” McEwan’s sly restyling of Kafka’s famous opening line doesn’t so much set the scene as establish the tone. What follows is a scabrous satire that pokes fun at, and tries to make sense of, an ongoing political crisis within a deeply divided UK.
After taking stock of the changes brought about by a “grotesque reversal” (fewer limbs, narrowed vision and “white buttons in a vertical line right down his unsegmented thorax”) Sams casts his mind back to the events of the night before. He recalls leaving the Houses of Parliament, scuttling along the gutter, dodging the treacherous feet of flag-waving protesters and squeezing under a door and seeking refuge in a strange building. But it is not any old building and Sams has not turned into any old “gigantic creature”. When a government aide informs him of his schedule, this former cockroach discovers that he has mutated overnight into the British Prime Minister.
Sams shrugs off his confusion and rises to the challenge. After all, his country needs him. A referendum has set Reversalists against Clockwisers. Reversalism, we learn, is a bold, new economic belief that the nation will prosper if it reverses its financial flow. People will pay a salary to work, but will be remunerated by shops for taking away their products. Sams was a lukewarm Clockwiser and now he has changed sides and is fully committed to honouring the referendum result and delivering Reversalism. “R-Day” will usher in an era that will cause the UK to be reunited and re-energised. All Sams has to do is to remain true to his word, forge ahead and ignore – or, if necessary, quell – any dissent.
This is McEwan’s second published work this year. Written as a response to the imbroglio that is Brexit, The Cockroach is fresh and timely without for one moment feeling like a rush job. It is also the latest offering in what can best be described as a late playful stage in McEwan’s career. Nutshell (2016) was a bravura repurposing of Hamlet as told by, of all things, a foetus. Machines Like Me, published in April, expertly incorporated a brave new world of artificial intelligence within a reimagined 1980s London. The Cockroach continues this streak and finds McEwan excelling with several witty scenes, absurd scenarios and ridiculous characters.
He writes about Sams waffling his way through Prime Minister’s Questions, or asserting his supreme authority in a Cabinet meeting that has all the severity of a Politburo session (with each of his minions painfully aware that “a misplaced smile could terminate a career”). He digs himself out of holes with help from dastardly political expedients, whether devising a trumped-up charge to destroy his rebellious foreign secretary or demonising the French to end a diplomatic crisis (“in a difficult time such as this, the country needed a staunch enemy”).
Written as a response to the imbroglio that is Brexit, The Cockroach is fresh and timely without for one moment feeling like a rush job. It is also the latest offering in what can best be described as a late playful stage in McEwan’s career.
Imbecilic US president Archie Tupper provides comedic value. However, when Sams has a private meeting with the German chancellor, the joke is entirely on Sams. “Why are you doing this?” she asks him wearily. “Why, to what end, are you tearing your nation apart? Why are you inflicting these demands on your best friends and pretending we’re your enemies? Why?” Her words change the tone and give Sams pause for thought. Suddenly, the whole debacle – Sams’ ludicrous project, the UK’s predicament – is revealed as being no laughing matter.
The Cockroach is only marginally in debt to Kafka’s classic novella. McEwan owes more to Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift, whose particular brand of satire was a means of improving society: “a public Spirit, prompting Men of Genius and Virtue, to mend the World as far as they are able”, he wrote. McEwan’s novella won’t mend anything, but it can still be enjoyed as both a sparkling jeu d’esprit and a stinging evaluation of the state of a nation.
Published: November 2, 2019 10:00 AM